Migrant domestic workers are primarily women who travel to foreign countries to work within a household on an assortment of duties including child/elderly care and housekeeping. As early as 1965, the United Nation’s International Labor Organization branch named domestic workers an exploitable demographic. Since this recognition, little has been done to ensure the safety of these individuals across international borders. It is estimated that there are 100 million domestic workers world-wide, 200,000 of which work in Lebanon and 2.5 million in the United States.
Workers are citizens of countries in the global south throughout Asia and Africa. Those who choose this career path are doing so because they are desperate, many must support their families who are entirely dependent on the checks that they send home. These women give up their children, husbands and entire life in the hopes that a 2-3 year contract will stabilize their rocky financial situation at home. According to The World Bank, these domestic workers have sent $191 billion back to their home nations. This desperate situation sets the stage for employers exploit these vulnerable and uneducated women who are living in an unfamiliar country with little-to-no governmental protection.
Working in Middle Eastern countries begins with an orientation coordinated by the agency the worker is contracted with. There are 360 agencies in Lebanon; each agency teaches women necessary skills for adjusting to Middle Eastern life and working for a more technologically advanced home. These women very likely go from not knowing what a bathroom is to cleaning one daily. Many labor-receiving countries also require the employers graduate from a similar orientation that explains cultural differences and language barriers but Lebanon does not, causing many employers to hold unrealistic expectations and causing conflict.
The Lebanese government does not recognize domestic workers worthy of labor laws created for their citizens. As a result, employers are able to require long-hours without breaks, food, sleep or sick days. In addition, there is no minimum wage standard.
Because employers sometimes view their workers as property, it is not abnormal for women to be treated badly. According to the Lebanese constitution, all people within the territory have the right to personal documentation. Despite this right, employers regularly take passports and other documentation from their employees upon arrival. This essentially entraps the worker and makes it difficult for them to escape negative situations.
Abuse is common and officials are aware of the problem despite lack of incidence reports. While many workers who endure abuse go unnoticed, an Ethiopian woman by the name of Alem Dechasa gained international attention when a video of her agency worker publicly beating her on the streets of Beirut surfaced on the internet. Unfortunately, she never saw justice for these acts as she committed suicide in a local hospital soon after the video was posted.
This incident garnered support for changes in legislation within Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. The United Nations publicly asked Lebanon to investigate the situation.
Suicide is common among domestic workers; Human Rights Watch reports that one worker per week commits suicide or falls off a balcony in Lebanon alone. The motives for suicide are clear: workers feel helpless and trapped, are indebted to their agencies and have nowhere to turn.
Conditions for domestic workers in the United States are also in need of improvement. The largest problem facing US domestic workers are diplomats who take advantage of loop-holes in US laws which allow them to escape prosecution for abusive behavior against hired help while in the country. US minimum wage laws are legally intended to be enforced but are blatantly disregarded. Like Lebanon, it is unlawful under the Fair Labor Standards Act to deprive another of personal documentation. Despite this, workers have repeatedly recorded that their documents were confiscated by their employers. Abuse and lack of privacy are also common complaints made against diplomats.
Pressure from the Arab Spring and other platforms helped countries take steps toward creating fair conditions for domestic workers internationally. In 2011, a pact was made that stated domestic workers have the right to labor laws in place in each individual country. This pact led to the International Labor Conference which founded the first set of international labor standards. In theory, these standards should directly improve the conditions in which domestic workers live. For any changes to be made, however, the convention must be ratified and inserted into individual domestic laws for these efforts to make a noticeable difference. Even more challenging will be the enforcement of these eventual laws.
Currently, Lebanon and several other countries are editing their current domestic work laws–consulting the new international standards during the revision process. These efforts are a positive step forward but will certainly be greeted with challenges as the process progresses.
President Obama began promoting change in labor laws in order to give workers protective rights. Lobbyists are currently fighting these possible law-changes in an attempt to benefit large home-care companies.